Earl Klugh Interview: Guitars, George Benson and Naked Guitar

By: Brian D. Holland

Earl Klugh is considered by many to be one of the finest acoustic guitar players today. Though his CDs are usually found in the jazz section of music stores, he doesn’t consider himself specific to that genre. He has released a number of jazz CDs over the years, often with big name jazz musicians playing alongside him, but he’s more of a contemporary artist.

Klugh played with Yusef Lateef when he was 15 years old. He recorded with George Benson, his renowned Earl Klugh Trio (with Ralph Armstrong on bass and Gene Dunlap on drums), and he did a stint with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. He lists Chet Atkins as his biggest influence. With all that said, Earl Klugh is a guitarist in the most prolific sense of the word. Given that many believe tone to be in the fingers, his are no doubt saturated with gorgeous tone, and his melodic style is downright beautiful and soothing.

With his acoustic prowess predominant in all of the arrangements, Klugh has released thirty albums of brilliant music since 1976, a handful of compilations as well. The latest release from the Grammy winning (nominated 13 times) composer and guitarist is a masterpiece of superbly arranged covers and one original, entitled Naked Guitar. It has since been nominated for a Grammy as well.

On Naked Guitar, Earl performs some of his favorite contemporary songs in his unique style, with intense feeling and emotion. “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Moon River,” “On A Clear Day,” and more are performed in a solo acoustic arrangement.

Below is my interview with Earl Klugh, a true master of the acoustic guitar.


Brian Holland: Earl, who influenced you at the start?

Earl Klugh: Chet Atkins was probably my biggest influence by far. I started playing guitar in December of ’63. I was playing finger style because the folk craze was so prevalent. I really liked the sound of classical guitar so that’s what I played in.

I think it was 1967 when I first heard Chet play. I saw him on a television show and it opened up a world of possibilities for me. I literally went out and got all the Chet Atkins records I could find. You know, back in those days it was pretty isolated when attempting to do something as rarified as finding ways to learn how to play finger style guitar.

The main source was records. I had an old Silvertone record player, and I had learned my basic chords, C, D, E, F, in major and minor. Basically I’d lift the needle back and forth and just work with my fingers. I’d just sit there all day until something clicked. And that was really my method of learning how to play, after about a year or so of guitar lessons as well.

Along the way, from listening to Chet’s records, I found out about people like George Van Eps and Kenny Burrell, and classical players like Julian Bream, Segovia, Jorge Morel, Howard Roberts and all of the fine players who were available at that time. I really stuck with the finger style and the nylon string guitar.

That was probably the most unique thing about my learning to play modern guitar, and that I was really interested in everybody, like Wes Montgomery and Johnny Smith, too. For me, I wanted to adapt what I could of their styles into my own style of acoustic and classical guitar.

That’s what I was doing in my early days. Charlie Byrd was an influence, Laurindo Almeida, Grant Green, Joe Pass. The other thing for me was that I got into pianist Bill Evans early on. That’s how I started dealing with harmony and chords. I just thought his concept was so strong, and the way he voiced chords was so beautiful that I tried to adapt as much as I could on the guitar. He was a huge influence on my playing as well.

Brian: Who was your finest teacher?

Earl: I’d have to say Chet Atkins again for sure because I sat there and came out of the dark with him. Then I’d have to say Bill Evans. Laurindo Almeida made a huge impact on me. An album he did, Broadway Solo Guitar, was just a wonderful, wonderful record. Also, listening to George Van Eps in the mid-sixties when he did that series of records on Capital, even though it was seven-string guitar, it posed a different challenge.

I remember some songs on the Soliloquy, album. I’d listen to them and it would get a little tricky. I’d transpose it so that I could play it on my guitar. I managed to get about three songs all the way done like that. Just the movement and the way he moved bass notes and everything was very interesting. They were all my teachers; I mean, it was right there. I just had to dig and find it.

Brian: Supposedly, you compose much of your material on the piano first.

Earl: Yes. Once in a while I’ll write on guitar, but most of my songs I write on piano. I just like to write a composition that doesn’t exist on an instrument. I just play too much guitar; and a lot of times, the way I write on the guitar anyway, it just all sounds like guitar stuff. [Laughs] Some of that’s good. A lot of the Caribbean songs I do write on guitar because it has that type of feel. But to write an intricate song, one that can be sung, it can be better for me to write it on piano first and then transpose it.

Brian: Have you ever thought of releasing an album of piano music?

Earl: No. I’m not that good. If I could improvise – I do a bit, but it’s so bad. As long as I’ve played the guitar, I’ve never tried to gain any technique on the piano. I just use it for writing, and it’s a good tool.

Brian: Have you ever given thought to electric guitar?

Earl: Oh, no. It doesn’t interest me; it just doesn’t translate. I love electric guitar when it’s played by people who can really play it. I love it as much as I do the acoustic guitar, but it’s just not my instrument. I have a couple of electrics. When I was a teenager and also when I was in my twenties I played electric quite a bit. But to be honest, I don’t think I’ve sat down and played anything on electric guitar, other than maybe an overdub for one of my records, in probably twenty years.

Brian: Talk about your release, Naked Guitar. In reference to the title, do you consider it to be more exposed than anything you’ve done in the past?

Earl: Well, Solo Guitar was all by myself, too. But I try to be careful, in a marketing sense, with my fans. I’ve done so many types of records, and different people like different things. It’s been a while since I’ve done a record, so I just wanted to alert people that if they’re not into solo guitar, then don’t by the CD. [Laughs] I have lots of fans, and they’re into hearing lots of different things.

Brian: I’ve listened to Naked Guitar a couple of times so far, and I really like a few of your interpretations on it. “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead,” “Alice In Wonderland,” “The Summer Knows” and Lennon and McCartney’s “I Want To Hold Your Hand” are fascinating. What would you consider to be your favorite on the album?

Earl: I don’t know. It kind of all flows together for me. But I guess my favorite cut, if I had to pick one, would be “In The Moonlight.” It’s a pretty song I heard it in a movie like ten, twelve years ago. I think it was with Harrison Ford. John Williams, the film composer, had a lot to do with the writing of the song.

Williams does so much that’s strictly symphonic movie scores now. But when he does write popular or jazz influenced music it’s really top rate. It was really great to find that song and play it because it’s good to find something that’s kind of obscure and to be able to put a treatment to it.

Brian: You recorded the CD in your home studio. Talk a bit about that process, and the equipment involved in recording acoustic guitar.

Earl: I have a Pro Tools-based HD system. Basically, I have a booth set up. It’s Pro Tools, but it’s not so much like audiophile; it’s more like a real-world studio because I have a booth and everything. It was very easy to work there because when you’re in your own studio you can concentrate on doing a song a day, whereas, when in a commercial studio you have to try and get as much done as you can.

I worked with a good friend of mine who’s an engineer and musician, a gentleman named Bert Elliot. He’d come by, and then my thing was to try and do a song or two a day. Just over several months of working two or three times a week like that, and without a lot of preparation, I could just go in and think of songs I’ve played, or wanted to play, and kind of run through it two or three times, until I felt comfortable enough, and then try to lay it down.

Usually what I did was, after two or three, maybe four takes, I’d have something and we’d just put it away. After we had recorded twenty or so songs, I’d go back and try to assemble something without listening to them anymore. It’s a good way to work because you become a lot more objective about what you’ve done.

Also, for me, you’re working in one space and with one microphone. That ambience doesn’t change too much, but at the same time, you’re able to work overtime. So I think my playing kind of changed. There was more variety in my playing from doing that, because so much of what I did on the record was improvisation on the whole arrangements. However it fell, there wasn’t any thought to it. I just kind of played it at the time, and it became what it became.

Brian: Did you mic the guitar or use a pickup?

Earl: We used a mic.

Brian: Your tone is considered by many to be one of the prettiest. Is that in your fingers or is it in the guitar?

Earl: Definitely in the fingers because I have many guitars I’ve used over the years. To have a definitive sound works in your favor, but it’s certainly not something I accomplished consciously. That’s just the way it sounds. When I first met Chet [Atkins], we got together at his house. I was playing, and he said to me, “Your records sound like you don’t have fingernails. But you do have fingernails, and you’re using them.”

A lot of people have told me that it sounds like I don’t use my fingernails. In my opinion, I do. It’s just a function of the way I grew into playing. Though I don’t use them like a classical player, I’d certainly have a hard time playing if I didn’t have fingernails.

Brian: In your own words, how good is George Benson?

Earl: He’s the best who ever lived, playing jazz, and one of the greatest musicians on the planet. I mean, with non-classical musicians anyway, he’s right there at the top with Herbie Hancock. He’s so ridiculously good, and he used to work terribly hard. When I used to work in his band, he’d get off the bandstand at 2 a.m. and continue practicing until six or seven in the morning, on a regular basis. I put him in with the class of people like Charlie Parker and Nat King Cole.

Brian: Talk about your days as a member of Return To Forever and playing with Chick Corea.

Earl: It was something really good and I’m glad I had the opportunity. All the guys at the time were friends of mine, just from traveling and running into various things. I was really good friends with drummer Lenny White. Stanley Clarke was one of my favorites. I met Stanley when we were both teenagers.

So it was a fun time and I really enjoyed it. The band, in that incarnation, was definitely the electric band. Basically what I did was fill in a gap. Bill Connors had left the band, and then I filled in about a three month gap between Bill and Al DiMeola. It was fun. I love Chick’s music.

Brian: You don’t consider yourself a jazz guitarist?

Earl: No, not in the traditional sense. When jazz stuck with me, it was when I heard Bill Evans. I approached it from that perspective. Then, of course, when I heard Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Johnny Smith, and George Benson, I wanted to incorporate as much as possible of that into what I was doing. At that point in time, I never thought of switching over to be a jazz player. I consider myself just a hybrid of a lot of things.

I love Brazilian music, which has a lot of jazz influence. I certainly saw the advantages of learning how to improvise, and to play through chord changes. That’s the most thorough way of learning how to play, and it’s really what separates the men from the boys, as far as I’m concerned. If you can’t get up and do that, it’s a handicap, no matter what style of music you want to do.

There’s been so much, especially through the ’80s and the ’90s, so many people who want to claim that I’m a jazz player, or that this is jazz music and this isn’t. I don’t have time for all that. I like it all. I enjoy it all. I incorporate as much as I can from all the different idioms, from classical to blues to jazz. I’m a fan of all of it. I don’t want to lay claim; I enjoy and love it all.

Brian: For cover music, like on Solo Guitar, and the new Naked Guitar as well, do you use a certain method when arranging the melodies to your style?

Earl: There’s a bit of a process I can explain. There are a few things on my guitar that I kind of use as my own prerequisite. One thing is, from playing in jazz groups and that kind of thing, I’ve learned how to play songs in any key, even when playing finger style.

But the thing I try to gravitate toward, the guitar being limited by two and a half octaves, is that I want to be sure when playing these songs that everything falls into a range that’s not too high or too low, and one that I won’t have to jump the melody. I like to play in keys that, when you go to the bridge and it’s really high, you can’t reach it, so you have to go to the lower octave.

Those are about my only concerns when I’m scoping out the range of a tune. A lot of times, too, I like to try and find interesting ways to modulate or change keys within the song as I’m playing, you know, just to give it another texture. Those are things I look at to begin with. Also too, just the actual variety of keys, too, because even though I play in E and A and those keys, I don’t play with an open string mentality.

That’s very limiting. If you think about playing just open strings, then you live in a world of Am, Em, A major. I changed my playing many years ago. I play in B flat probably more than A, unless there’s a reason to play in A, or I play in A flat or G. It just makes it easier.

Brian: Do you get into alternate tunings?

Earl: No. To me, those are crutches. The amount of time you spend learning tunings you could be doing the other thing, which is what puts you in line with everybody else’s instrument. That’s my thing. When you go on a bandstand and you’re playing with a pianist or an organist, a trumpet player or a harpist, the song is in the key that it’s in.

A lot of times they’ll modulate or change it, and that’s always been a big thing for me as far as being a fully rounded and accomplished guitar player. But that’s just my take on it. There are a lot of tunings that are beautiful. The guitar is a beautiful instrument, and there are a lot of ways to approach it, but I very much limit that in my way of playing. I just look at it as traditional tuning. Once in a while I’ll tune the E string down to D and that’s about it.

Brian: Do you think theoretically and within the lines of sheet music when you play?

Earl: I’m really self-taught and I learned how to read music playing piano, but basically I go by ears when I play. I can read a chart, but I’m more reactionary on the bandstand. I’ve trained my ear to hear the flat 5s and 9ths, diminished, raised chords, and all of that. I just hear that and respond, which is just more of what I learned from moving the record needle back and forth.

Brian: Talk about your guitar and gear.

Earl: I’m pretty straightforward. I have a really decent collection of pretty nice classical guitars. I have a couple of guitars made by David Rubio. He made instruments in the ’60s for Julian Bream. I have two Velasquez guitars, which I really love. I’ve recorded with one of them probably more than any other instrument. I did my first four albums with it, and I’ve used it periodically right up through everything else.

On the road there are several guitars I use. For about eight years now I’ve been using guitars made by Del Langejans, he’s out of Holland, Michigan. He’s primarily a steel string builder and they’re really nice instruments. When traveling I take a couple of instruments, because a lot of times they get banged around, the electronics. I want to make sure something works when I show up. I have to check at least one guitar all the time.

I was having problems with this, so I spoke with him and he was able to build some really road-worthy guitars that sound great through pickups in an amplified setting, but at the same time were sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of the road. I’ve never had a problem with any of his instruments, so that has worked well for me. He was kind enough to listen to my particular situation and build some instruments that work for me, and they work well. I’ve got about five of his instruments and I always take two on the road. They’re equipped with L R Baggs pickups.

Also, the person I’ve had even a longer association with, dating back to the late Eighties, is Paul McGill out of Nashville. He’s a great builder too. He specializes in classical guitars. He’s a fine builder, one of the best. I have eight or ten of his instruments. We’re good friends and he builds instruments specifically for me.

One of his instruments I have equipped with a McLish pickup. It’s totally a classical guitar with no modifications. I use it quite often, and I try to take it on the airplane with me. Even when it’s amplified it has no amplified tone to it. Especially when I do the trio shows, that’s what I use. The guitar is just more exposed and I need that fullness of sound.

In the past I’ve used Takamine guitars, which are great; they work wonderfully. I was lucky. I got one in Japan many years ago, a beautiful instrument. I’d travel with that. Now I keep it at home.

I use D’Addario strings. I really like them.

Brian: Do you think there’s a peak level to learning to play guitar, Earl?

Earl: Oh, I’m still learning. I don’t know if there’s a peak level. There’s so much more I want to do. That’s the fun thing about playing guitar. If there were nothing else to learn and do there’d be no reason to play. My enjoyment is searching out new things to play every day, and ways to play it. That’s the enjoyment I get out of it.

My favorite time is practicing. I enjoy being on the bandstand, too, especially with the trio because it’s a different type of entity. But I really enjoy practicing, learning new songs, and inventing new things for myself. There’s nothing you can play that someone hasn’t played some way before, yet it’s fun to work it out for yourself. That’s what I truly enjoy.


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